As a Friend, Reviewed by Mandy Twaddle for The Providence Journal

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Poet’s premiere novel uses conflicted character with grand, sweeping southern landscapes to exude literary emotion.

Forrest Gander, acknowledged by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass as “a southern poet of a relatively rare kind, a restlessly experimental writer,” recently released his first novel, As a Friend, a brief volume divided into four parts.

Set in a small, unnamed southern town, the novel’s main character is Les, an elusive protagonist who manages to charm everyone around him, from his lovers to his coworkers. Les’ life is shrouded in mystery, partially because no one in the small town really knows where he came from and also because of his compulsive lying habit. Les “took lying to be creative,” and seems to be unable to tell the truth about anything, from small fibs — such as what time he’ll meet up with a coworker — to larger lies — such as marrying one woman, Cora, and living with another, Sarah. Apparent contradictions similarly surround Les’ life. Although he works as a land surveyor, Les is also a poet and is famous enough to have a documentary made after him. He is good looking and extremely intelligent, yet is living in a nowhere town working for minimum pay.

The first part of the novel depicts Les’ birth. His mother, an unwed teenager, immediately gives him up for adoption after birth. The birth scene is graphic, sometimes a bit too much so, yet contains such strangely vivid descriptions that the reader is immediately drawn into the story. Gander uses phrases such as “knuckles wedged between the hot sheet and the flesh that heats it” to describe the mother’s physical pain. The emotion and the violence that surrounds Les’ birth precede the emotion and violence that permeate his life, and set up the moody, descriptive tone of the novel.

The second part is narrated by Clay, Les’ coworker and friend. Clay cannot help but admire Les, and has confusing romantic feelings for him that he never comes to terms with. As his name suggests, Clay attempts to mold himself after his suave friend, yet cannot live up to Les’ standards. When Les speaks, Clay cannot follow his imaginative ideas. When Les and Clay backpack through the forest, Clay struggles through the underbrush while Les strides with ease. Clay, who struggles with his mixed feelings of inadequacy and admiration toward Les, eventually calls Cora, Les’ wife, and tells her that he is cheating on her, which releases a chain of events that eventually leads to Les’ suicide.

Les is based on Frank Stanford, a real life poet who also is surrounded by elusive mythology.
As a Friend can be read as a biography of Stanford’s life, with direct parallels between the two lying characters’ lives: both worked as land surveyors, both were involved in affairs and both committed suicide after their affairs were discovered.

As a Friend’s ambitiousness lies in Les’ character. To create such a deeply conflicted, contradictory persona takes more than just good writing. Part of Gander’s success lies in the southern landscape and atmosphere he creates. Gander, who grew up in Virginia and graduated from the College of William & Mary, very often uses Virginia landscapes to create his southern milieu, although he infuses his descriptions with a beauty that almost seems unrealistic. This is fitting, however, because the mythological and beautiful world is necessary for the unrealistic character of Les to flourish.

As a Friend is a book about emotion. After Les’ death, the novel is narrated from the point of view of his grieving lover, Sarah. She explains, “Love solves nothing, but your love made me appear to myself.” Likewise, this book offers no solutions or explanations for the cruelty that surrounds friendship and love. But for a few brief pages, the reader is asked to mull over the true meaning of friendship, and how we can see humanity within even the most flawed characters.